In Conversation | John Selway

Last month the eminent painter and printmaker John Selway celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday. Born to Welsh parents in the small south Yorkshire colliery town of Askern, near Doncaster, he has lived and worked in Abertillery ever since his parents decided to return home to Wales in 1940.

Part of a golden generation at the Royal College of Art that included the fledgling Pop Art luminaries Derek Boshier, David Hockney, Allen Jones, R. B. Kitaj and Barry Bates – the future Billie Apple – Selway immediately set about pursuing his own artistic agenda. Always working from memory, he has often ventured far and wide in search of suitable subject matter. An influential tutor at both Newport and Carmarthen Art Colleges, whether flirting with abstraction, drawing inspiration from literature or responding to a landscape, his primary concern still remains as always, the human condition. 

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In Conversation | John Selway

Jonathan Glasbrook Griffiths: John, it would seem that even as a child your parents recognised that you were possessed of a special talent?

John Selway:Well yes, you see my father was a very good artist himself, he came from a very cultured family so it wasn’t a particularly alien concept for them. My grandfather who had moved to Yorkshire to work as a mining engineer was a very good musician, he formed a choir, he put on the Messiah; in fact he put on all sorts of cultural things within the community. He was also very left wing and was heavily involved with the Workers Educational Association. I don’t know if he was actually a card carrying communist, but there were suspicions that he might well have been.

At the age of fifteen you started attending the then Newport College of Art. What do you remember of those early days?

The interesting thing about Newport when I went there in 1953 was that they had a very, very good sculpture teacher called Hubert Dalwood, ‘Nibs Dalwood’, and then, when he was awarded the very first Gregory Scholarship [1955] and went to Leeds, he was replaced by another very good sculptor called Trevor Bates. Painting was taught at the time by Tom Rathmell, he was an extraordinarily good teacher, he didn’t say a great deal, but he was a tremendously good artist. Dalwood used to keep us in touch with everything that was going on up in London.

I believe uniquely at the time we didn’t paint to the exam. When you got to do your NDD [National Diploma in Design] you had to do this large figure composition, life drawing and all the rest of it, but we were allowed to do what the hell we liked up until a couple of months before the exam and then we did our set pieces.

With all that freedom, what kind of work had you been doing in Newport?

Well, it was sort of semi abstract, a lot of drawings and stuff, I suppose in a way I was slightly influenced by Michael Andrews and Bryan Kneale, the sculptor, and Sutherland, and to some extent Bacon. I couldn’t stand Cezanne; in fact there were a lot of things I didn’t like.

After your National Service, you found yourself in the midst of an exceptional group of students at the Royal College; was this apparent to you at the time?

I think so, yes. We were so different to the other students.It was pretty obvious too because a lot of the older students; although they were talented, they were also very orthodox, there was no rebellion or anything. During my first year, we locked the staff out of the studio; we nailed the door up. Then there was a kind of Night of the Long Knives when the staff tried to get rid of a lot of us at the end of our first year. A series of interviews took place and it was quite interesting because I don’t know what Ron Kitaj said but everyone after Ron stayed, the ones before didn’t. [In the end Allen Jones was the only student to be sent down].

Surrounded by all those would be Pop Artists, what form did your own work take?

At the time I was the only one doing a kind of St Ivesy (sic), abstract, gestural kind of thing in the painting school. They weren’t all that happy about it, in fact they weren’t that happy about it at all. I had a very good personal tutor called Sandra Blow. I had lots of conversations with Sandra about the kind of work I was doing.I really didn’t know what I’d wanted to do when I got there. I knew that I had come to the end of what I’d been doing in Newport. I remember seeing this painting by Sandra; she had a stack of them up in the mural room. She used to come in two or three times a week and the next time I saw her I said I really like that, what a great painting, tell me, how did you do it? She spoke about being influenced by the landscape, but not in a figurative kind of way, she was trying to do this inner thing. She talked about Roger Hilton and Peter Lanyon and those people. I started looking at them and I’d also been aware of the American Abstract Expressionists by the time I’d left Newport, but of course you didn’t get to see them or if you did it was in little snippets of black and white, so of course you never really understood what was going on. David Hockney was very enamoured at the time by Alan Davie but I didn’t quite get that mystical kind of stuff, but Hilton, Lanyon and Sandra Blow, I really took to them. So that’s what I was doing by the end of my first year.

By the time it came around to my Diploma show, I had almost gone full circle. I was becoming more and more interested in figurative painting again, but I really didn’t know how to approach it properly. I knew I didn’t want to be a Pop Artist; that was one route to figuration but there didn’t seem to be many other avenues. I suppose there was the Keith Vaughans, there was Francis Bacon, but Francis Bacon was so Francis Bacon you couldn’t really go there.I never liked David Bomberg and his crowd; I’d never liked that approach to painting, it was a confusing time in a sense. The gestural stuff that I did in that period was something I needed to do because I really couldn’t find a way forward with figuration. I was trying to find a way between abstraction and figuration; I didn’t know how you did that. I knew I didn’t want to be doing stylised Picasso or Braque, or Colquhoun, MacBryde or Ceri Richards or that kind of thing.Then I read this book called Vos by Patrick White. I was so knocked out by it that I started to get imagery out of it, and bearing in mind I was still in that sort of gestural, flowing paint frame of mind I suddenly started dipping clothes in paint and putting them on to the canvas, making figurative references, sticking on bits of tree and all sorts of things. This is mainly what I ended up showing in my Diploma show, much to the chagrin of the staff who didn’t really seem to get what I was doing.

At that time you must have cut quite an unusual figure, a boy from Wales with your very own dealer in tow.

It happened when I was in the army. I’d put a painting into the Young Contemporaries; that would be in 1958, I think. Henry Roland [of Roland, Browse and Delbanco] saw it there, he found out I was in the army but going to Guildford Art College part time and I got this letter from him at the college asking if he could come and see some more work. He looked at the stuff I had there and was absolutely knocked out by it and so he offered me a show. In my second year I had a mixed show at the gallery and a fantastic write up by Basil Taylor in The Listener; that did me a lot of good.

So you were a kind of star before the stars.

Yes, I suppose I was [laughs], at the time I found it all very easy and it would have been very easy just to have carried on doing it, but it would have fizzled out like all the other gestural artists who went on doing it fizzled out. There was a new kid on the block and that was Pop Art. You were either making it massively in which case you couldn’t just jump in, or you made your name in a small way. Now, I wasn’t thinking logically back then, but I knew that I had found the right area to pursue, whether or not I had a show or not. I shall be forever grateful to Roland, Browse and Delbanco because they saw me through from that gestural, figurative landscapey kind of stuff right through to almost complete figuration. It also allowed me to come out of London and do it here in Wales.

For many years you enjoyed great success in London as well as abroad, what prompted you to stop showing up in town?

Well, initially it coincided with my dealers’ retiring. I went to the Piccadilly Gallery and had two shows there and then I went off to Spain. When I came back Lillian Browse who had stayed on at the gallery had linked up with a guy called Will Darby to form Browse and Darby. They knew that I was unhappy at the Piccadilly and they knew I’d been to Spain to do these circus paintings so they asked if they could see them.They offered me a show and it did quite well. Unfortunately Will was pushing it in one direction, whilst Lillian was taking more and more of a back seat. I liked Will a lot, but mutually we agreed that my work didn’t really fit in with the direction he was going, he was becoming very interested in painters like Euan Uglow, so we parted company. Then I got a letter from a guy called Henry Elwell. He’d been working for Roland, Browse and Delbanco and knew my work. He was setting up on his own and asked me if I’d like him to take over. I said yes, do what you will, and he got me a show at the Christopher Hull Gallery. I had two shows with him [1985 and 1987]. He was all right, but I didn’t really like him. He’d done quite well for me but I thought I can’t stay here. So I thought, oh fuck it.

The relationship between an artist and his dealer is extremely important.

Oh yes; I always had this tremendous relationship with Roland, Browse and Delbanco. They were Jewish dealers of the old school and they were fantastic and I loved them, we got on very well as people.So after that I felt bugger this, you know, I can’t be bothered with this nonsense any longer so I just went on painting over here, picking up shows where I could, different things, I was quite happy with it really. I had a number of shows at the Washington Gallery in Penarth. I sold very well. I also curated a number of shows for them which I quite enjoyed doing. There is a certain amount of freedom in not being tied up with a gallery but there is a pay off as well. You forgo publicity and things like that but on the other hand you think I’ll do the work anyhow.

Over the years I’ve detected passing similarities between some of your paintings and those of other artists, early Hockney or Edward Burra, for example.

Yes, I think it comes from the nature of the idea you are trying to deal with.I find that when I’m thinking about various things, certain ideas come to mind and you think, Oh Christ! I’ve seen that somewhere before, not as a finished article, but I’ve seen references to what I’m thinking about in so-and-so’s painting. You don’t set out to paint like someone else but it happens that because you are both trying to deal with the same thing, you come up with similar solutions to it because there aren’t too many others. I remember reading about Concorde in some paper saying that the Russians had pinched the idea and some aero engineer responding in a letter saying, ‘Utter nonsense, if you’re both trying to solve the same problem there are only ever going to be so many solutions’.  Well, I think the same kind of thing applies to painting.

Whilst doing my research I read that at one point you destroyed a large number of paintings.

Now when did I destroy them? It was the late 1990s, early 2000s, somewhere around that period. Well, what happened was I found that the actual technique of painting, the actual application of paint and the physicality of it all were getting in the way. It was something I came to realise was obscuring a lot of what I was trying to say so that you were left with style rather than content. That was the last thing I wanted. Some of them were, how should I put it, well just crap. I thought I’ll get rid of these and just burn them. Others I thought, this is not right for now, I can always redo them again another time if I want to, so I burnt them too, here in the garden. The workings of the painting had become more important than the actual thing itself.I think there comes a time when you need to clear stuff out and let them take their chances. I didn’t deliberately seek anything out, but if it was in the studio and it was there, then I got rid of it, but if it wasn’t, then ‘Okay’ it survived, it had a life.

At the recent show in Newport [56:56] you displayed a large triptych and several others featured in your Newport retrospective [2007] as well. Although it is a very old format, it also seems quite modern in a way, like a cartoon strip or a piece of film, it offers all sorts of narrative possibilities.

I started doing them a number of years ago. I hope that what I’ve done is break away from the classic three-part piece and split them up as well. I think of it in almost musical terms where you get a slow movement, a fast movement etc, like a classic concerto form but within them you also get other little pieces going on, I see it like that in a sense, that appeals to me.In a real way, it allows a sort of scope which in a single image, relies on the mind to do that, you’ve no control over people’s minds, you try and control it by placing limitations over where they can go, so that if you view a section there and that’s split and that’s split you’ve a lot of control over where they can go. 

The guy who really led me into it was Max Beckman. I’m a great admirer of Beckman, the way he used a particular kind of theatre at the time that allowed him to have more than one activity going on at the same time. Kitaj did it but in a single painting. I remember him talking to me about Beckman; I’m certainly not finished with it yet.

You’re currently working on a series of paintings exploring the landscape of the Spanish Sierras. Is that it for now or are you already thinking of the next project?

Well, I still have some ideas to do with Dylan Thomas, I did that large Christmas piece that you saw in Newport [A Child’s Christmas in Wales 1947]; I know I’ll be doing more.I’m still interested in doing these Spanish landscapes. The one I’ve got on the wall now, I’ve got to finish that, there are things I still want to do with it. I want to get behind the landscape. I still think there is a lot of mileage in them if I can get them right. I’ll go back out there, I’m not sure when this year, but I will go back out.

Some early landscapes and your ongoing fascination with Dylan Thomas’ poetry notwithstanding, you’ve tended to shy away from overtly Welsh subject matter yet you live here in this beautiful valley, have you never felt the urge to paint it?

I’m too close to it in a sense, but I do think it affects the way that I deal with landscape in general. It works in a reverse sense in the sense that I find that when I go to the Mediterranean, for example, when I go onto the beaches there, it’s such a contrast with here, that it focuses me on that scene because here is not like that. My every day is looking at this [gestures towards the window], then I go there and I see this fantastic theatre on the beach. I think about the contrast that I see with life here, you become very excited by it, you know, visually. I am essentially this figurative painter; nowhere else do you find people in a public place so uninhibited as on a beach. I can’t get excited by rural England.It’s memory I deal with more than anything else, the idea of a place.

For me it’s an absolute necessity to get away from here. My love affair with living in Wales comes from a whole host of stuff that’s not necessarily related to art. Lots of things really, politically I suppose, the people, my friends, that kind of thing.

With that parting comment it’s time to head off to the pub, a ritual John still observes most days, a spot of lunch, a couple of halves and of course more chat.